A slide from "It's time to fix HTTPS"

Reviewing my daily feed of tweets this morning, I ran across a presentation called “It’s time to fix HTTPS“. The topic itself is of interest to all of us, since it concerns the security of e-commerce transactions, among other things.

Yet the slide deck lacks basic appeal:

  • Only text (or busy screen snapshots)
  • No obvious organization or story
  • Three boring slides of disclaimers and acknowledgments at the beginning,
  • Acronyms, jargon,
  • Long sentences, broken apparently at random

This kind of presentation is not an infrequent occurrence, unfortunately. For some reason, many scientists and computer scientists seem to take pride in showing horrible slides. I resisted the urge to make a catalog.

So let me state something that should be obvious, but obviously is not: Just because you are smart doesn’t mean your presentations have to suck. Or put it another way: Your time is not so precious that you shouldn’t help your readers get your point.

Sharing an idea

The whole point of a presentation is to share an idea, to convince someone. This requires some work at two distinct levels, form and contents. Let’s assume that you have the contents, what can you do about the form?

Here are three simple things to keep in mind to build a presentation that is useful for you and for your readers:

  • Tell a story
  • Keep their attention
  • Be a guide

Remember above everything else that your objective is to share your idea, not rehash it to yourself. Therefore, if the idea does not contaminate your audience, the presentation failed its objective.


The “storytelling” word has been used and abused. The gist of storytelling is that sharing an idea is not just about sharing facts, it’s about making your audience take ownership of your idea, make it their own.

This is often hard to accept for the scientific minds. Aren’t facts enough? In reality, all facts can be disputed. All opinions have to be defended, explained, elaborated. Even if the idea is obvious to you, it may still be wrong, or dangerous, or you may need to explain the basics to avoid losing half of you audience.

Storytelling is not about what you say, but about how you say it. Don’t write “It’s time to fix HTTPS“. Prefer “Do you know it’s really your bank talking to your browser?” Instead of “Global PKI, as currently implemented in browsers, does not work“, what about “The browser chain of trust hangs to weak links“? (assuming I understood the core argument correctly)

What am I doing with this simple rephrasing? I’m trying to deliver the same facts, the same core idea, but in a way that the audience may relate to. Not everybody knows what HTTPS means, but anybody (reading Google Docs) knows what a browser is or that security matters when it talks to a bank.

Even the best facts need a good story for people to get interested or remember them.

Keep their attention

The slide deck about HTTPS is on a topic that interests me, but I had some trouble following it to the end.

In these days of soundbites when wisdom has to fit in 140 characters, sometimes you need all the help you can get from fancy visuals, animations, speaker charism simply to keep the audience awake. And if you don’t have a speaker (e.g. for an on-line presentation), you may need other tricks.

Google Docs is clearly not the best tool when it comes to delivering fancy presentations. It’s not a limitation of on-line tools, though. Actually, some of the most convincing innovation in that spaces comes from on-line tools. SlideRocket delivers really nice presentations, arguably much better than the average PowerPoint. And what’s the best reason to use Prezi, if not fancy visuals?

Still, do not go overboard. Beware that a movie does not replace a presentation. Who has not seen one too many on-line video like this one?

It certainly took a lot of work. But in my option, it’s the exact opposite of the HTTPS slide, i.e. it’s all about showing off effect after effect. It doesn’t keep my attention either, it smites it to bits.

So how could the HTTPS slide deck retain my attention better? There needs to be some level of organization, some key message, some way for me to understand “Ah, that’s what they are talking about now”. We don’t want raw data, we are already over-fed with data. So whatever we pay attention to needs to be structured.

Fancy visuals do not replace the presentation. But, utilized well, they make it live.

Be a guide

Sharing innovation is even more difficult. To paraphrase A.C. Clarkeany sufficiently advanced idea is indistinguishable from gibberish.

It takes a fair amount of marketing and communication to correctly explain the value and benefits of some new technology. I remember being very happy that VMware was doing all the work of educating our customers about the value of server virtualization, which meant we didn’t have to do that work when talking about HPVM.

Innovation is about telling others what to do. And nobody wants to follow directions, so you need to do it not with brute force, but by getting the audience to actually follow you. One way to do that is by showing a better way. Another is by inducing fear of the current situation.

The HTTPS presentation tries both approaches, but without much conviction. The fear is too implicit, you really need to understand the technology. The better way, the greener pasture just over the fence is a little bit too vague. So it’s not entirely convincing. The technical arguments could be made into a much more appealing proposal, however.

To be a guide, you need to already know where you are going.


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